Here's the big picture as the initial version of CONCACAF Champions League finally moves into its quarterfinal stage: Mexico has gobbled up half the spots, although its foursome of tournament survivors has stumbled into hard times.
Meanwhile, two spunky USL sides have a monumental opportunity to raise regional and international awareness and to elevate the profile of North America's second tier of pro soccer. And Houston is left alone to defend Major League Soccer's slightly besmirched honor when the home-and-away quarterfinal legs begin.
Eight teams remain in the debut continental competition, which started with 24 clubs last summer. New England and Chivas USA of Major League Soccer crashed out straight away. D.C. United punched its way into the group stage last fall but faded meekly from there.
Even the Dynamo needed an 11th-hour reprieve to stay alive, as a win in its very last group stage match late last November ensured passage into spring play. While some of the talent around Robertson Stadium has indicated that prepping for the upcoming MLS season is paramount, Houston manager Dominic Kinnear insists his team is assigning ample weight to the fledgling Champions League competition.
"I'm taking it seriously, and I know the players are, too," Kinnear said.
|Quarterfinal 1st leg
Houston vs. Atlante
Robertson Stadium, Houston, Texas
10 p.m. ET
Feb. 25 Montreal vs. Santos
Olympic Stadium, Montreal, Canada
10 p.m. ET
Cruz Azul vs. Pumas
Ciudad de Mexico, Mexico
10 p.m. ET
Puerto Rico vs. Marathon
Juan Ramón Loubriel Stadium, Bayamon, Puerto Rico
10 p.m. ET
Success in the tournament could offer Houston some measure of redemption following the club's stunning exit from Major League Soccer's first playoff round last year. But it might be tough to match collective fitness and match-day intensity with Atlante, since the Mexican side is well into its spring season. The Dynamo, by contrast, have prepped only through a few preseason friendlies.
"We know Atlante has a little bit of an advantage, because they've played some games already," Dynamo defender Eddie Robinson said. "But we'll be ready."
Houston's Feb. 24 date at Robertson Stadium kicks off the quarterfinal round. Atlante hosts the second leg at Estadio Quintana Roo in Cancun on March 3. The winner will face Montreal or Santos Laguna in the semifinals.
The series with Atlante will mark Houston's first thrust without the slashing and dashing of Dwayne De Rosario; now it's up to Stuart Holden to drive the Dynamo offense. While De Rosario's numbers in MLS last year were fairly humdrum (7 goals, 2 assists), his ability to rise to the moment helped steer the Dynamo through group stage.
De Rosario's stunning 88th-minute strike from 30 yards gave his team a 2-1 victory over Panama's San Francisco FC in group play. And he supplied the corner kick that Brian Ching converted in quarterfinal-clinching win over El Salvador's Firpo in November.
Atlante, having given up its longtime Mexico City base in 2007, is now playing in one of Mexico's popular resort destinations. The team has slumped since claiming the top spot in Group C of Champions League round-robin play. Atlante backed into last year's playoffs in the Mexican Apertura (fall tournament), and Los Potros de Hierro haven't done much to distinguish themselves in the Clausura (spring tournament).
Manager Jose Guadalupe's side has just one win (and only six goals) in five matches so far in 2009. Colombian forward Luis Gabriel Rey has three of his team's goals in 2009. Gabriel Pereyra has two for Atlante in the current Clausura.
What the Dynamo can gain from this tournament, a debut event with little brand equity and almost no general market awareness, is up for debate. But no one could deny what this opportunity means for the pair of USL survivors. A bid for regional decoration may loom larger for the Puerto Rico Islanders and Montreal Impact than the coming championship chase in their own league.
Montreal faces Santos, which is tied with Atlante for last place in Group 1 of the Mexican league. In fact, none of the Mexican teams is prospering currently. The other remaining clubs, Pumas and Cruz Azul, are fourth and fifth in Group 2 respectively.
Santos' struggles may be good news for Montreal, which already has something special brewing even before kickoff. The Canadian club has sold more than 45,000 tickets for its Feb. 25 date at Olympic Stadium. Impact executive vice president Richard Legendre said his side has done well in USL competition and in filling the splendid 13,000-seat Saputo Stadium, but says it's clear that next week's event reaches another level.
"Always, there is a perception that MLS is above USL," Legendre said. "Sometimes it is difficult demonstrating that we are good quality, too. Now we are demonstrating that through our performance in Champions League."
Adding to the overall theater and air of excitement over the moment for L'Impact de Montréal is the choice of venues. Because of problems with the roof nine years ago, winter events are rare now inside Quebec's historic Olympic Stadium. The roof will be closed, but an occurrence of heavy snow could still force postponement.
Manager John Limniatis says his side's counterattacking style should contrast nicely with the Mexicans' possession game. And the club fortified its roster this week by re-signing forward Peter Byers, who joined the club last year but was on trial briefly with San Jose of MLS this winter. Byers scored three times in seven games after his late-season arrival in Montreal last year.
Puerto Rico, likewise, might consider its home match against Honduras' Marathon as the most important date in club history. The 2008 season was big for Puerto Rico, under the direction of former FC Dallas manager Colin Clarke. The Islanders lost to Vancouver in the USL championship final, but steered confidently through Champions League group play.
The team will lean heavily on MVP Jonathan Steele and highly rated defender Cristian Arrieta to get it through the home-and-away series with the Honduran power.
Clarke's side will face a team in the midst of a severe-injury maelstrom. Marathon's Maynor Suazo -- whose résumé includes stops in Norway, Turkey and Germany's Cologne, plus a highly successful six-year hitch at Red Bull Salzburg in Austria -- is back at his hometown club but currently recovering from knee surgery.
Well-regarded young defender Erick Norales and Honduran international Mario Beata also are among Marathon's injured.
Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.